Friday, April 24, 2015


Hey all, it's been a long time. Let's dive back in!

Bloodborne is the new horror action RPG from Japanese developers From Software, and the fourth game in the "Souls series" (because most of them have the word Souls in the title). Director Hidetaka Miyazaki brings his trademark blend of challenge, exploration, mystery, and a coherent overarching vision to the land of Gothic and Lovecraftian horror, and creates what may be the best game in the series.

Let's put it this way: I bought a PS4 primarily to play Bloodborne, and I'm satisfied with that decision. That's how good this game is. So, why is it such a success?

First, Bloodborne keeps most of the elements that made previous Souls games special. The core combat engine is excellent, relying on a slow pace to encourage tactical thinking and featuring strong but fragile enemies in small groups to encourage picking your battles and seizing the right moment to strike. The core loop of risk versus reward in a single currency is still the beating heart of an intoxicating, addictive system designed to stretch your limits. The passive multiplayer system, where you can leave notes and hints for other players, or watch the ghostly forms of others as they die, still gives you a sense of community and hope in an otherwise unrelentingly dreary and miserable setting, as well as alerting you to traps and secrets that would otherwise be well-hidden. The game has a clear and consistent vision and a great sense of pacing, like a well-directed movie, so that almost nothing pulls you out of the experience. The game is allergic to cutscenes, quick-time events and tutorials, and the plot is minimalist and unclear unless you read every scrap of text in the item descriptions. The community is still divided over which of the 3 possible endings is the "good ending", for instance.

Second, Bloodborne trims a lot of the mechanical fat from previous installments. Instead of a surfeit of slightly different weapons and armor to collect, there are barely a dozen, but each one has a far greater variety of possible moves. Instead of an upgrade tree with half a dozen different materials to collect, there is a single linear upgrade path, plus a bunch of freely configurable gems that encourage you to try new builds without having to restart the game. Instead of Dark Souls 2's nine stats, there are only six, and each one has a clear effect on your character. Vast swathes of the game are completely optional, and in a stroke of genius, there's a whole second campaign of increasingly difficult pseudo-random "chalice dungeons" which provide a source of end-game content beyond simply replaying the game on a higher difficulty level. You don't have to worry about how much your character can carry, the quality of your armor, how many spells you have left, or any of the other make-work that plagued previous games, although there are still half a dozen too many potions, elixirs and bombs in your inventory that I rarely used.

Third, Bloodborne brings a new setting and a new feel to the table to differentiate itself from the competition as well as its predecessors. The Victorian Gothic city of Yharnam is a relentless profusion of fog, closed doors, twisty alleyways, and gabled roofs, which starts out vaguely menacing and edges closer and closer to ruin and madness as the game progresses. If anything, the new game is too busy, full of boxes and coffins and railings that can make it difficult to figure out where you're supposed to go in these circuitous levels full of shortcuts and hidden side paths. From the mechanical end, you now carry a gun instead of a shield, you can dodge much faster and more often, and you can regain health by attacking immediately after you were hit. The gun is much weaker than your melee weapons, but it's great at interrupting or staggering enemies, leading you to use it more as a counterattack or parry than a long-range sniping tool. Similarly, the lack of a shield, the fast movement, and the health regain system encourage you to stay in close quarters with your enemy, darting in and out of their blows like a fencer or a boxer, rather than inching forward with your shield up like an armored knight. The move to Victorian quasi-steampunk from medieval fantasy allows the perfect opportunity to rename or reinvent staple elements. These aren't magic rings, they're magic runs you memorize while sitting at your desk! That's not a bonfire, it's a lantern! That's not a zombie, it's an angry villager with a pitchfork! Presented in new ways, and with a much greater focus on staying active and putting yourself in high-risk, high-reward situations, the game feels liberated.

The last element is the introduction of a stiff challenge, and here Bloodborne also succeeds, perhaps a bit too well. Souls games are not difficult in the "Nintendo Hard" sense of requiring perfect timing and coordination, although they're certainly geared towards people who have played a lot of video games before. Instead, they contradict a lot of standard "video game logic" assumptions, forcing you to re-train your mind to succeed. The game is tough but fair: almost every time you die, you feel like it's your fault, that you could have pulled through if you just dodged better, or if you didn't rush blindly into that ambush, or if you had traveled back to town and spent your money on better gear or more levels. Once you've cracked the code, learned the patterns of the enemies and become comfortable with your trusty weapon, the game becomes almost easy, and the thrill of mastery floods through you. (Then, usually, you go online to brag about how great you are and how dumb everyone is who's still stuck on the first boss. But that's just Internet macho culture at work.)

Souls games are special because they respect you as an adult. You reap rewards for being observant, thorough, cautious, and decisive. There is no voice-over explaining why you're doing what you're doing, but if you pay attention you will figure it out without being told. If you draw your sword on your allies, they will be hostile to you forever. If you forget to use your invitation to Cainhurst Castle, home of the vampires, before finishing the game, no one will remind you and you'll just have to try again next time. If you ask for help from other players online, you don't know whether the other person will help you, or try to kill you; you can only hope that your respectful bow will motivate him to deal honorably with you.

Bloodborne looks great, it sounds great, it plays great, and it's just a delightful game overall. I highly recommend it.